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Group of six people brainstorming with sticky notes following the rules of brainstorming

Rules for Brainstorming: A Freelancer’s Guide to Generating Ideas

Nikki Wisher
Nikki Wisher

Having a project in front of you with no idea of where to begin is downright uncomfortable and a surefire way to spark your anxiety. Luckily, the doctor has a cure: a good old-fashioned brainstorming session or two.

Not all brainstorming sessions get the job done, though. If you just spend half an hour throwing out random ideas and call it a day, all you’re left with is a long list of half-thoughts and unsubstantiated plans. Having too many loose ideas is almost as bad as having no ideas at all.

To make the most out of your time, follow these ultimate rules of brainstorming every time.

1. Block Out Distractions 

The core idea of brainstorming is to block out everything else and solely focus on this one project. You can’t do that if you’re pulled away by notifications from your phone every two minutes.

Hold your brainstorming in a distraction-free zone. Leave your phone in the other room, have someone else watch the kids if you’re working at home like most freelancers, and get your mind exclusively in the zone of this project.

2. Entertain Every Thought

You want to come away from your brainstorming session with high-quality ideas, but the best way to find quality is to focus on quantity first. Write down every idea that pops into your head, even if it seems weird or impractical. Then, dig deeper with each one and weigh out the pros, cons, and challenges.

You might discover that an idea you would’ve dismissed as impractical is more doable than you think. Those seemingly crazy ideas can also lead you to a modified version of them that’s the perfect fit for your project.

3. Make It Visual

As you’re generating ideas, you need an organized and visual way to write them down and lay them out. This allows you to have more of a discernible structure to your thoughts rather than just having a list of scattered ideas.

There are plenty of ways to do this, so lay out your ideas in whatever way makes the most sense for the situation. Ideally, have it mirror the structure of the project. For instance, if you’re designing a website, set up a separate large paper or whiteboard square for each page where you can jot down features and ideas.

This helps you in two ways. First, by clearly seeing the structure of what you already have, you can more easily stick with that flow and build on those ideas, rather than seeing an overwhelming list of words. Second, after your brainstorming session, that visual map of your ideas will give you a clearer picture of your ideas so it’s easier to move forward.

4. Take a Second Look

The goal of brainstorming is to get “in the zone” and let your mind work its magic. Sometimes that leads to spectacular, creative, actionable ideas. Other times, you think you’ve created the next Mona Lisa but when you step back, it’s actually just a messy blob of paint.

No matter how well you feel your brainstorming session went, always put it aside and sleep on it. Come back to it later, ideally the next day, with fresh eyes. You could spot something you missed or spark a new idea you didn’t have the day before.

5. Stay Fluid

A brainstorming session is a work in progress, and you need to treat it that way. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into a single idea or thought process because you may miss something better right in front of you.

You should still follow the thread of each idea, expanding on it and envisioning how it could fit into your project. Just don’t spend too long on any one thread so you can make room for the other possibilities.

For this reason, it helps to use an easy-to-adjust method for taking notes and tracking your ideas as you brainstorm. Sticky notes are a common favorite, and so are whiteboards because you can adjust things and move them around as needed. Those note-taking options are temporary, though, so don’t forget to take pictures and keep them in your digital storage so you can always go back for a refresher.

6. Build on Ideas

The ultimate goal of your brainstorming is to come up with an actionable, fleshed-out plan for your project. That doesn’t happen if you simply generate as many surface-level ideas as you can and stop.

Consider breaking up your brainstorming session into blocks. For instance, let’s say you have an hour to brainstorm ideas for a marketing campaign. Spend the first ten minutes coming up with as many general themes or ideas as possible. Then choose your favorite five ideas and spend ten minutes with each of them, expanding on them and considering the details.

Following the Top Rules of Brainstorming

Many people think of brainstorming as an unstructured time to just throw out as many ideas as possible. If this is one of a long series of sessions, that’s great. But if you want your brainstorming session to result in a true plan for your project that you can use to create concise action items and tasks, you should go into it with a more focused intent. The rules of brainstorming above will help you make the most of it and come away feeling the peace of having a direction to go.

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